Monumental undertaking for Brigade to field an Arena Football League team

To understand the difficulty of taking the Baltimore Brigade from abstraction to reality in a matter of months, from an idea in a Washington boardroom to an expansion Arena Football League team playing its home opener Sunday, consider the field not taken.

In mid-November, when the Ted Leonsis-owned Monumental Sports & Entertainment announced the birth of the AFL franchise, it had no name, no coach, no roster. It had a home at Royal Farms Arena, but no field.

So as the coaching staff was appointed and the roster was filled over the winter months, officials sought out something they could play on. In October, the league had folded the Portland Steel franchise; befitting a Brigade team stocked with transplants from shuttered AFL teams, including coach Omarr Smith, the field was shipped east in January for inspection.

There were problems. It was an older field, having spent time underfoot two league franchises. In Portland alone, the midfield logo already had been replaced once, as the Thunder became the rebranded Steel. It did not seem to have been cared for well. There were bumps on the turf, perhaps from storage at suboptimal temperatures.

Just how bad was it? Jeff Bowler, vice president of business operations for MSE, said it is not even suitable to donate. In late February, just over a month from the start of the season, a decision was made.

"'Listen, we can spend $60,000 or 70,000 to have this field fixed, or we can make the six-figure investment and just get a brand-new field that's going to last us forever,' " Bowler on Thursday recalled MSE officials concluding. "So we just decided it was the right thing to do."

The order had to be expedited, which, in the Brigade's formative, condensed preseason months, was just the normal pace of things. Bowler said the synthetic-turf manufacturer they enlisted, Turf Nation, usually requires three months to complete a project. The new playing surface arrived in early April. It had taken just five weeks.

Quarterback Shane Carden remembers seeing the field after it had been rolled onto Royal Farms Arena's main floor last month. There were bubbles dotting the turf, and the edges rolled onto the dasher boards like wild vines.

On Thursday, as he walked around at field level — the pristine turf having been cut down to specifications, the goal posts having been erected, the oversize inflatable Brigade helmet having been inflated — Carden marveled.

"We knew [that] if it was going to be finalized, we were going to be OK," he said. "But it was just kind of like, 'Oh, this is going to be our field when it gets there.' But it's finalized now, and like I said, it feels good that we actually have a home."

It is a home with many residents, as former Ravens and current Brigade wide receiver LaQuan Williams well knows. He has seen the circus here, and concerts, and Carmelo Anthony. He will run routes Sunday against the Tampa Bay Storm (2-1) where he once played in Torrey Smith's annual charity basketball game.

So on Thursday, the Brigade (1-2) held an open house for fans and potential season-ticket holders. The venue looked largely as it would for Sunday's opener, minus the 5,500-plus expected in attendance, with the green carpet laid down and bumping music blasting overhead.

In between, the venue would undergo another transformation: to "the hippest fashion show on four paws." On Saturday night, Royal Farms Arena is set to trade footballs for fluffballs with Pawject Runway, a fundraiser for the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter.

Upon the show's 10 p.m. end, the changeover begins anew. A team of about a dozen crewmembers folds up chairs, stashes them away and, like the Brigade itself, gets game-ready.

The goalposts, rigged up to the ceiling this week, are lowered to regulation height. The dasher boards are covered with corporate signage. The rolled-up sections of turf, held in the arena's storage garage, next to the soccer field on which the Blast plays, are forklifted back to the arena. "It goes together like a puzzle," said Frank Remesch, general manager of Royal Farms Arena.

In all, it takes about six hours. "That's actually nothing," Remesch said, laughing. "Try to do monster trucks to basketball. Try to do 120 truckloads of dirt [into the arena]."

It is a feat the Brigade, and team brass in particular, can appreciate. Professional football teams have come and gone in the city over the years, undone by disinterest, malfeasance and Mayflower trucks. The AFL is no sure thing, either. In recent years, it has seemed as structurally sound as the Brigade's discarded turf, contracting from 18 teams in 2011 to five this season.

But Smith, the team's first-year coach, talked about Sunday's game as if fans would be treated to a field of dreams. The Brigade's first three games were on the road; they were due a housewarming party. The hope is that this team, this field, will be built to last.

"The tight window has been crazy," Bowler said. "This is something that you shouldn't do, is try to start a sports team in four months. But we did it, and we're here, and we're ready."

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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